August 30, 2003

Oklahoma City

Oklahoma City was a nightmare. I have bombed before, but it's still painful. There was the breakfast speech to the tire dealers in Las Vegas, which I did as a favor to a cousin, and which was the worst speech those tire people ever had to listen to at 7 a.m. But tonight was pitiful. For one thing, it took place on the first Saturday of football season, which, in Oklahoma, is like Easter is in Rome, and anyone who does a show that day deserves his comeuppance. For another, it rained. Hard. It poured so loud the rain on the stage roof sounded like truck traffic on the Interstate. Twenty-five hundred people sat on the ground, in the open, drenched to the skin, and I walked out on stage and did what I could to amuse them and nothing worked. A sick helpless feeling, when you do what you thought was your best, stuff that other audiences liked, but tonight you might as well be speaking Norwegian—I've had dreams like this, in which the audience is dark and silent, a line of trees, and you jump around in slow motion and nothing gets a response. What the poor wet people wanted was a different show. Delbert McClinton would have been a huge hit, or Asleep At The Wheel, or Dwight Yoakum, or a comedian who could get up and do 60 minutes of killer material, but I did not kill, I didn't even cause momentary swelling. I stood up there and twisted in the wind. The low point was when, in desperation, I started to recite poetry—poetry!—and it went over like a stone kite. And then the ultimate humiliation, which is to shake hands with well-wishers who tell you how much they liked it. It brings tears to your eyes. The poor good-hearted people who sit through three hours of sheer misery and then feel obliged to thank you for it. One sinks in shame.

It was silent in the van from the venue to the airport. The driver was veering all over the road, changing lanes, and the van's suspension seemed to be shot. One could see the headline: "Minnesota Man, 61, Dies In Flaming Wreck After Worst Show of Career." And now, heading for Louisville, sipping mineral water, one sits and ponders the meaning of it all. Storytelling, or whatever it is I do, is a fragile vessel and you can't do it in a heavy rainstorm or next to a freeway or in the midst of a train yard. It doesn't work. You can do comedy there, because it has a beat to it and the jokes build. But that sort of comedian can't do 33 different live radio shows a year. It may take him or her a couple years just to hammer together those 60 minutes. I'm not disciplined to do that; I'm a writer, not a performer; I have things I want to say, not necessarily of a killer nature, and if I couldn't say them, I'd have no interest in being on a stage; I have less urge to perform than the average 10-year-old girl. For me, it's all about those moments when something spontaneous and true comes out. Tonight, nothing. I was a dermatologist trying to do root canal surgery. Out of my depth.

Oklahoma City was the wrong venue in the wrong part of the country. The show doesn't play well in Texas or Oklahoma: It's the wrong show, it's too northern. A chill fell on the crowd when Guy Noir picked up a phone and George W. Bush was on the other end: They didn't want to hear it. In Seattle, they screeched for pleasure, and in Oklahoma City they went deadly still. He's the president, and you don't make fun of him here, not if you are from the North. The venue was a rock'n'roll venue. Lots of security everywhere. Guys with security badges who ask you for your ID as you leave the stage for the dressing room at intermission, even though you're in a tuxedo and black tie and were on stage five minutes ago, they want to see your backstage pass. They're serious. Rock'n'roll is big on security, because it unleashes so much craziness, and you never know what meth freaks might do, but with the gentle public radio audience, it's insane to have two beefy guys on either side of you when you go to shake hands with people. But there the beefy guys are, looming, sullen, threatening, and when you ask them to step away, they say, "Just doing our job," and crowd in even closer to make sure that none of these Unitarians stick a shiv in your ribs. It's the absolute pits: The fans, having been tortured and rained on, now shake your hand and are glared at by a couple of Terminators, so that, in addition to being a horseshit performer, you are now an arrogant asshole with a retinue of heavies, like a hip-hop star.

Well, it can't ever be any worse than this. One takes comfort from that. Dues must be paid, and dirt must be eaten, and sometimes the rain must fall. It could be worse. On to Louisville, where we'll play the Palace Theater. The lights will go down, and the audience will be dry, and afterward people will walk up and shake hands, and no goombah will give them the eye.

Posted by ewalter at August 30, 2003 01:24 PM
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